Interview with Bob Brisack of I've Been Framed
Most artists in Portland have probably met Bob Brisack. Now white-haired and in his early eighties, Bob’s 50-plus year passion for wheeling and dealing art supplies has benefited thousands. He’s shared his love of people, art supplies and screaming deals through I’ve Been Framed and a whole list of previous ventures. Bob worked in his store at least 25 hours per week until he fell and broke his back last May. Still recuperating, he welcomed me to interview him on behalf of UAN in his assisted living home with all the wit and graciousness he’s shown to customers for five decades. I’ve Been Framed general manager Prairie Clark joined us. After working for Bob for almost 20 years, she’s his honorary daughter.
Funny thing about Bob: He’s not an artist. “I couldn’t draw a straight line with a ruler,” he said. Born in 1930 in Lincoln, Nebraska, he developed his resourcefulness, resiliency and business acumen on the family farm during the Great Depression. At the age of seven, he sold eggs for 42 cents a dozen. Even then, he paid attention to customer service. He knew which customers wanted brown eggs, which preferred white, and which wanted some of each. Bob earned 25 cents building fires for Orthodox Jews on Saturdays. His mother was also good at business. Originally from Russia, she was a fabulous cook. She’d bake small pies to sell to Works Project Administration work crews. She and Bob would wait until the wind was wafting just right to spread the irresistible pastry smell over the work site. “They smelled so good when they were hot,” Bob remembered. “Boy, those men just waited for those pies.”
Early Years in Portland
The Brisack family arrived in Portland in 1945, on the same day the Japanese surrendered. After high school, Bob studied theology for a year at Cascade College. But then he got married. “We started having children bang, bang, bang. I had to work endlessly to support them.” He started in the art supply business as a delivery boy for J.K. Gill. By the time he left seven years later, he’d worked his way up to assistant manager. The more he learned about the business, the more he wanted to strike out on his own. He and a coworker decided to be business partners. He told his boss about their plan. “Mr. Gill said, ‘You guys are crazy. You’ll starve.’” But he went ahead anyway. “Young people think that the world is going to work out.”
Wheeling and Dealing
Over the years, Bob participated in a mind-boggling array of art-related business ventures, partners, mentors, successes and losses. One scheme involved stretcher bars. Another had him traveling to Mexico to buy shipments of 1,000 frames at wholesale prices. He learned about the salvage business, buying damaged or outdated goods for resale. His depression-era upbringing taught him to be smart with profits. He saved money to invest in business and real estate, and made sure his five children knew the worth of a dollar.
In 1971, Bob bought a building at SE 37th and Gladstone and launched Art Supply Center, which would eventually evolve into I’ve Been Framed. He filled the store with salvaged art supplies and quickly gained a devoted following of artists who appreciated his low prices. Bob also traveled as far as Eugene and Salem to sell supplies to engineers, artists and architects. Business wasn’t always good. During the 1980 recession, the store only brought in $135 during the entire month of August. Fortunately Bob was smart with money, having put enough away to survive lean times. “You stay,” he said. “That’s the point.”
SE Foster Road Location
In 1990, Bob bought the current location of I’ve Been Framed. Oil stains coated the floor of the old auto supply on SE Foster Road. It looked awful, but Bob had a vision. He called in a crew to fix it up. “I can’t work with my hands,” he said. “I have to work with my mouth.” The new space was 5,000 square feet. When he opened it with two employees, the store was so large and empty you could hear an echo. “I never dreamed at the time we’d fill it up. I thought what did I ever buy this for?”
But as Prairie puts it, Bob was never afraid to jump off a cliff by buying four semi-trailers of art supplies. As his reputation in art supply salvage grew, the offers kept coming. People would pull up with pickups or even semis loaded with art goods, and ask Bob to take a look. At various times he bought 685,000 pencils from Tennessee, 98,000 paintbrushes and 50,000 mats. He filled up much of the new space with these finds, including a mezzanine that Prairie compared to Grandpa’s attic.
“When a shipment comes into the back room it’s kind of hard to keep the kids on the floor selling,” Bob said of his employees, all of whom are artists.
“You’re just as excited!” Prairie fired back. “You’re the first one back there with a knife, opening boxes like it’s Christmas morning.”
Sometimes it’s kind of sad to clean out a store that’s going out of business, Prairie said. “But at the same time, I love what we do because it’s a huge help to them,” she said. When you have to clear out your inventory in a hurry, it’s certainly helpful to have somebody offer you a fair price.
People always figure Bob must be an artist himself. If not, why his passion for art supplies? “I don't know,” he said. “I’m crazy. I just love art. And I love the people.”
Bob sold the business to his son Mark, who now runs the store. The staff has grown to 14 full and part time employees. “They’re characters, but I love them all,” Bob said. The staff has long had a family feel. Indeed, Prairie says not many employers would have welcomed her as a young single mom to bring her baby to work in a basket. Most IBF employees have worked at the store for at least six years.
Bob has watched his customers grow up. Some he knew as young art students now bring in their grandchildren.
Bob hopes his health will allow him to return home soon, and to the store. But he feels good about the success of his professional enterprise, and the success of his children. “I have no regrets,” he said. “I had so much fun. I love what I did.”
Visit I’ve Been Framed for your art supply and framing needs. The main store is at 4950 SE Foster Road; smaller store at 2819 SE Ash.